Biden takes office: Analysis and perspectives

By: Luis Meiners

The inauguration ceremony took place in a city prepared as a war zone. Checkpoints, fences and more troops deployed in DC than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. The pandemic added to the picture a reduced audience and general public replaced by flags. Trump did not participate in the ceremony, and left the White House in the early hours of the morning. An event that condenses the contradictions of the political moment.

In a conjuncture marked by the assault on the Capitol two weeks ago, the ceremony was presented as a “turning point” and a moment of “national unity”. Unity was the central theme of Biden’s inaugural speech. This snapshot illustrates a moment in which the establishment has closed ranks behind the defense of the institutional order and the ruling class’ desire for stability.

The mainstream media presented the inauguration as a defining moment, comparable to 1861 or 1865 in the context of the Civil War, or 1945 at the end of World War II. But what can we expect, beyond the photo of the day? What tasks does the new government face and under what conditions? What challenges and debates does it present for the Left? This article attempts to address some of these elements.

Stability at home

The following quote from the CEO of a major corporation in a recent New York Times article summarizes what they see as the task of the moment: “We need to stabilize. We need certainty. If we can’t come together, can’t stabilize, or if it got worse, it wouldn’t be good for business.” These words reflect the fatigue of the bourgeoisie with the instability associated with the Trump presidency. They tolerated him despite not being their candidate in 2016 and celebrated his tax cuts. But the assault on the capitol was too much. The National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and other business representatives condemned the events. It was a breaking moment.

Biden will seek to regain stability, and restore the legitimacy of the institutions of bourgeois democracy. That is the image that the inauguration ceremony has tried to project. Moving forward, he will seek to build a bipartisan consensus, working closely with sections of the Republican party that have turned away from Trump. Recent statements by Mitch McConnel, holding Trump responsible for the events on the Capitol prove that there is openness in parts of a divided Republican Party for this bipartisan strategy of “national unity”.

The crisis triggered by the pandemic and aggravated by Trump’s criminal denial is the most pressing issue on the agenda. Biden has announced that he will send a 1.9 trillion dollar rescue package to Congress. It contains $1,400 pandemic relief checks, the extension of unemployment benefits and their increase to $400 (they had been reduced to $300 after the $600 benefit expired), assistance for small and medium-sized businesses, and funds for the reopening of schools, mass vaccination and assistance to states and municipalities. There is a consensus between the ruling class and the establishment that getting out of the crisis will require spending. But this does not mean that there will be no austerity. The announced package is far from having the magnitude of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” as some of its apologists on the Left have stated. It will bring oxygen to a battered economy and not for too long. The increased deficit at all levels of the state, without any reform to change a tax system rigged for the rich, means that there will be cuts sooner rather than later. Some are already happening at the local and state level.

In addition to this Biden will sign a series of executive orders that will reverse some of Trump’s most irritating policies, a clear change in style, a diverse cabinet, and the promise to send reforms to Congress on issues such as immigration. However, these will have to go through a tied Senate, and the commitment of bipartisan work that will surely limit the real scope of the measures.

Restoring “leadership” abroad  

The other key task for Biden is to reassert the imperialist hegemony of the United States. To the decline of the last decades, with the “forever wars” in the Middle East, and the sustained ascent of China, Trump´s international policy added the weakening of relations with allies and of the multilateral institutions through which the United States exercises its hegemony. As Biden himself wrote in Foreign Policy: “The next U.S. president will have to address the world as it is in January 2021, and picking up the pieces will be an enormous task. He or she will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges”.

Biden’s promise to restore US “leadership” in the world is fully in tune with the concerns expressed by the National Security apparatus. It clearly reflects both the understanding that the United States must confront a world of increased instability and inter-imperialist competition and the awareness that its relative weakness means that it cannot do it alone. So it seeks to move beyond the unilateral “America First” approach, regain its position with its traditional allies to form a solid foundation to “get tough” with new and old rivals on the world stage.

The conditions

Summarizing, we can say that the main tasks facing the new government are the restoration of stability, “business as usual” for capital, and the legitimacy of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, and, at the international level, reaffirmation of imperialist hegemony. In a sense it means turning the clock back four years and picking up where the Obama presidency left off. But that is hardly enough.

First, because the conditions of 2016 themselves contained the fundamental elements that played out over the next four years. Trump was not a “black swan”, an unpredictable event. His presidency was the product of a growing political and social polarization that has its roots in the 2008 crisis, which, in turn, expressed the exhaustion of a model of accumulation, of an imperial hegemony and an institutional order. These combined crises will not go away with Trump leaving the White House.

Second, because new elements have been added to these conditions and previous trends have become more acute. The pandemic was the trigger for an economic and health crisis that has had a particular impact in the United States, where a death toll of 400,000 has already been surpassed. The economy suffered a sharp decline and the recovery seen in the third quarter of 2020 has slowed. In December unemployment rose again, and the data revealed a drop in consumption. In this context, competition with rivals such as China, which have emerged relatively stronger in the last year, is intensifying.

The polarization and radicalization of the last decade has been a protagonist of the recent period. The huge rebellion against racism and police violence mobilized millions for months in 2020. Its effects will continue to be felt, as they did in Trump’s electoral defeat. Biden will take office with a mass movement that has not been defeated, and that constitutes a strong determinant of his room for maneuver. On the other side, the far right has grown bolder during the Trump presidency. From Charlottesville in 2017 to the assault on the capitol, it appears as an actor on the national stage who will remain relevant in the coming years.

All of these elements combined act as conditioning factors of the Biden presidency and explain the structural weaknesses that it will have to carry out its tasks. Even when at the present conjuncture it may be relatively strengthened by the pull for “national unity” and the establishment closing ranks behind it to turn the page. These structural weaknesses will set the pace for the next period and will become increasingly visible as the smokescreen of the transition dissipates.

Challenges, opportunities and debates in the Left

The political stage, for all the reasons stated above, is marked by a series of combined crises and a government and a regime with structural weaknesses to face them. This means that, regardless of the conjuncture, political instability, polarization and radicalization will continue to be fundamental elements in the coming period. This opens up important opportunities and challenges for the left.

As we have seen in recent weeks, the far right will continue to be a relevant actor. Although small in number, they have the capacity to carry out actions with national visibility. Currently, the assault on the capitol has put them on the defensive and isolated them, but it also becomes a propaganda event that emboldens them and strengthens their recruiting capacity. Faced with a government that will not solve the structural causes that feed its development, the extreme right will continue to grow.

This poses a challenge for the Left. There are conditions for the development of an independent socialist alternative, the anti-racist rebellion gives ample evidence of this. But a substantial part of the Left is going the other way. After the assault on the capitol, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez appeared as defenders of the institutions. They lined up behind the Biden administration and the Democratic Party to “defend democracy.” The Left could play a fundamental role in the situation, calling for massive mobilizations against Trump, the extreme right and the proto-fascists, from an independent stand with regards to the institutional order and the Democratic Party. Conditions for this exist.

Faced with the Biden presidency, it is urgent that the Left appears as an independent alternative on the national stage, confronting both the extreme right and the Biden government. Failure to do so will contribute to polarizing the political scene between the government and the initiatives of the right. The danger is great, but so are the opportunities. There will undoubtedly be fundamental moments for the development of the left in the United States.